Obama Has 2 Narratives on Afghanistan

President Barack Obama
Associated Press + More

By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In President Barack Obama's twin narratives, the United States is both leaving Afghanistan and staying there.

The different messages are meant for different audiences, one at home and one away. As Obama's brief, symbolic visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday made clear, the more important audience is American voters fed up with a war that will be in its 12th year on Election Day in November.

The president flew in secret to sign a long-awaited security compact with Afghanistan. It was after midnight in Kabul when the signing took place, and 4 a.m. there when Obama addressed Americans in a specially arranged speech at 7:30 p.m. Washington time on network television. By the time most Afghans woke up, Obama was gone.

[Read: Obama Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan.]

"My fellow Americans," Obama said from Bagram Air Field, "we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the predawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."

The backdrop of armored troop carriers matched Obama's message of praise for U.S. forces who fought and died in Afghanistan, but it was an odd fit for what followed — a direct appeal to American optimism and self-interest in an election year.

"As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America," Obama said.

The agreement pledges ongoing U.S. support for Afghanistan after 88,000 U.S. combat forces leave. The pact envisions wide-ranging U.S. involvement in Afghan economic and security affairs for a decade, if only as an adviser or underwriter. It gives Afghans a promise of more roads and schools and support for the uneven Afghan fighting forces.

[Read: Obama Sees 'New Day' 1 Year After bin Laden Raid.]

It gives the U.S. a security foothold in the country to bolster Afghan forces for their continued fight against Taliban-led militants or al-Qaida, and to keep an eye on neighboring Iran. Obama's emphasis on a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan reflects a lingering worry about the threat of a Taliban resurgence after 2014, when U.S. and NATO combat forces are scheduled to leave.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for attacks that rocked Kabul a few hours later. Officials and witnesses said a suicide car bomber and Taliban militants disguised in burqas attacked a compound housing hundreds of foreigners in the Afghan capital, killing seven.

With the agreement signed Wednesday in Afghanistan, the U.S. also has in mind the strategic significance of preserving a military partnership on Iran's eastern frontier, even if it does not include permanent U.S. bases.

Even after the U.S. combat mission is concluded in 2014, it is likely that thousands of U.S. troops will remain for some years to conduct counterterrorism strikes and otherwise train and advise Afghan forces, and help the Afghans collect and exploit intelligence on insurgents and other military targets.

The agreement was long sought by the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the perpetually skittish leader who has publicly voiced fears of what would befall his country if the United States quickly packed up and left.

"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war," Obama said in the speech. "But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly."

The larger rationale of the agreement was to reassure Afghan leaders that the United States would not repeat the mistake it made following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Then, Washington withdrew support for anti-Soviet militia forces in Afghanistan and set the stage for Taliban rule. The Taliban then allowed al-Qaida to use the country to plan the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In his speech, Obama turned the signing of the promise to stay in Afghanistan into a vehicle for his other promise — to go.

The signing was a quick and businesslike affair at Karzai's palace in Kabul. There were pleasantries, but no pageantry. There was also no opportunity for Karzai to make one of the off-message demands or denunciations of U.S. behavior that have exasperated U.S. officials in the past, even when they acknowledged Karzai had a point.